Activision's "Call of Duty" series has become such a global phenomenon the controversies surrounding each release are more interesting than the games themselves. The latest edition has even drawn the wrath of the Cuban government, thanks to a mission based on an attempt to assassinate a young Fidel Castro.
"Call of Duty: Black Ops" has plenty of other elements engineered to trigger protest. It's mostly set during the Vietnam War, still a touchy subject for any pop-culture treatment. There's some entirely gratuitous torture. And there's a weird post-game fantasia in which Castro joins President John F. Kennedy and future President Richard Nixon in fighting off a zombie invasion.
All the free publicity - day-one sales totaled $360 million - tends to obscure the question of whether "Black Ops" is actually any good. The short answer: If you're a "Call of Duty" fan, you won't be disappointed. If you're not a fan, this installment won't change your mind.
The solo campaign traces the career of U.S. special forces operative Alex Mason, who's being interrogated by an unseen tormentor. His adventures are presented as flashbacks, bouncing from the streets of Cuba to the jungles of Vietnam to the wastelands of Siberia between 1961 and 1968. The story draws unashamedly from cinema, cribbing not just from Vietnam movies such as "Apocalypse Now" and "The Deer Hunter," but also from Cold War thrillers such as "The Manchurian Candidate" and "Dr. Strangelove."
All the usual first-person shooter locales are in place: You fight in a city, you fight in the snow, you even fight aboard a sinking ship. The combat is relentless, and the controls are slick and satisfying. But the enemies are dumber than I remember them being in previous "Call of Duty" titles; many of them won't even notice you until you've shot them in the face.
More irritating is the near-constant presence of an escort to guide you through each level. Shooter experts will find it condescending that almost every mission requires you to follow another character through the war zone. It makes "Black Ops" feel more linear than most war games, with little reward for venturing beyond a predetermined path.
If you want more freedom, you'll have to venture into online action. The essence of multiplayer - kill everyone else - remains unchanged, but you earn "CoD points" for everything you do. You can gamble those points in Wager Matches, which include the game's most absorbing challenges: Gun Game, in which you get a better weapon with every kill, and One in the Chamber, in which you start with just one bullet.
The comprehensive selection of multiplayer modes and maps makes "Black Ops" essential for anyone who enjoys shooting at friends and strangers over the Internet. The addition of wagering makes it all the more addictive.
"Black Ops" developer Treyarch has been the second-string player on Activision's "Call of Duty" team. But sister studio Infinity Ward, which revitalized the series with the 2007 landmark "Modern Warfare," has been rocked by the departure of its founders, forcing Treyarch to step up its game.
For the most part, Treyarch has come through, delivering a visually dazzling adventure. Its twisty, time-skipping narrative is more ambitious than expected, although the missions themselves are generally predictable. And one question continues to bug me: If Alex Mason and his buddies are so skilled at supposedly clandestine black ops, how come they make so much noise?
'Call of Duty: Black Ops'
Rated M, $59.99 for Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3